Soundscape Medicine : Calling for More Silence for Health

We habituate to our surroundings and new levels of stress. One source of stress not often mentioned is sound pollution. We are familiar with air pollution, light pollution, plastic pollution, water pollution…sound pollution? Our world is noisy and more silence – a pause from man-made sounds – has a positive effect on our health and well-being.

Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe

These are the words of advice from The Nature Fix author Florence Williams who looks from all angles why nature is just, well, good for us. Part of the problem today is our environment is too full of stimulus. The level of sound pollution is astonishing.

Our brain already filters out many, to function like “normal” humans and not go crazy. Our nervous system is overactive and overactivated. The health industry recognizes this and hence (partly) the boon in all things mindfulness, being present with all our senses awake, grounded and anchored. And yes, forest bathing is a real thing.

Just 20 minutes in the woods changes how we feel. The drop in heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormone cortisol, etc is felt palpably. Our moods improve, we feel relaxed, and our body is letting out one big sigh.

According to The Nature Pyramid, for optimal health, we need different doses of nature daily, weekly, and monthly, and a longer and more intense getaway once a year. Having easily accessible and safe green space in our neighbourhood or on our daily route makes a meaningful difference.

What if you don’t live in a tree-lined neighbourhood? What can you do?

The world is a very noisy place. Just take a moment and listen. Roadworks. Doors slamming. Music blasting. Kids screaming, even if it’s in glee. Planes overhead (Florence William’s bane). There is an underlying humming of all the electronic appliances. Man-made sounds. This is sound pollution we all deal with.

According to Florence Williams, more than 80% of land in the US (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) is less than a mile away from a roadway.

The quietest place in the US, in case you are wondering, is the Hoh Rainforest, if you go early in the morning, before the planes.  About 160 miles from Seattle’s city centre, it is part of the Olympic National Park. Better luck in Canada, New Zealand, Norway…less densely populated areas of the world.

Or you can try the “peak of natural basalt that thrusts skyward out of the Atlantic like a black pyramid”1 – Skellig Michael or Great Skellig in Ireland. You can visit in the summer season and weather permitting, climb up the steep rocky face to the monastery and its six stone beehive chambers. Or escape into the sea at the dive sets around the island.

The point is our world is far too noisy. How has sound pollution increased? The noise level is doubling every 30 years2. Perhaps you have stopped hearing all the ambient noises. The key, as demonstrated in research of monks vs non-meditators, is not to tune them out. That is not mindfulness.

Even if people can tune out these sounds and noises, the body is still processing them. Sounds are vibrations and our bodies are as well! Remember also that it takes energy to filter and block noises. Even while we sleep, noises still elicit a (dampened) stress response, which interferes with our nightly rejuvenation and recuperation. It is no wonder that so many people struggle with poor sleep and low energy levels and are reactive. It is more than light- and electrosmog pollution at hand. Sound pollution may be an overlooked factor in poor sleep quality and healing.

Being alert and monitoring our soundscape is an evolutionary skill. The human psychology is somewhat suspicious of complete silence. Classic horror movies have certainly played that up, where any creak of a door or snap of a twig brings on an onslaught of terrifying storylines and imageries in our imagination. Or maybe we are not so comfortable, alert, and capable as we once was. Our soundscape has gone sonic, bombarding us with far too many unnatural sounds and noises.

One way people are actively blocking and altering environmental sounds is putting on earphones and creating their own soundscape with a playlist. This may seem like a great idea. The problem is that they are disconnecting from human interaction and their environment and losing the subtlety of natural sounds.

Wild Sanctuary

“Without sound…there would be no music, no legend, no voice to stir the soul, evoke the memory, or transport the spirit!” – Wild Sanctuary.

What is your biophony and anthropophony like? Visit Wild Sanctuary to listen to the natural world, and recordings of vanishing sounds. Nature encompasses a spectrum of frequencies that undulate, with bird-songs showing positive effects on our health. (Free samples and MP3 available for sale) Some people, Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP) and introverts for example, are more sensitive and may have a pre-disposition to noise annoyance.

According to field recording scientist Bernie Krause, the sounds of the natural world are being lost. Man-made noises alter the environment and disrupt the survival of animals by interfering with their communications, for example. “In a biophony, animals divide up the acoustic spectrum so they don’t interfere with one another’s voices.”3

Take a sound audit of your environment.

What do you hear? What natural sounds, what man-made sounds? What are the decibel levels? A normal conversation registers at around 55 decibels, busy city traffic at 85, and a gas mower and hair dryer both above that. For every 3 decibels over 85 (which has a safe permissible limit of 8 hours), the permissible time exposure cuts by half.

What if we can have “Rush Hour Silence”4 on public transportation for everyone to unwind after a day at work, to let go of work stress and to transition back into personal domains more mindfully? We list stress factors as unreasonable work load, difficult boss and colleague, bad weather, poor health, etc. We rarely think of noise pollution as a source of stress. It is. If you want to alter the soundscape on your commute, try one of the nature sound recordings from Wild Sanctuary.

What can you do to bring in more sounds of the natural world? Where can you go to listen to uplifting birdsong, the sounds of waterfalls, crickets singing…The more we get outside, back into nature, away from manmade sounds, the more healing we receive and the more resilient we become. This reconnection with nature is likely to trigger questions about what we are doing to the environment with our habits of convenience and lifestyles. We need Mother Nature, way more than she needs us and we need her unquestionably.


We should think about soundscapes as medicine. You can prescribe sounds or a walk in the park in much the way we prescribe exercise. Do it 20 minutes a day as a lifetime approach—or you can do it as an acute stress intervention. When you’re stressed, go to a quiet place.

Joshua Smyth, biobehavioral psychologist5

We live in a noisy world. Sound pollution has only increased over the years, with more and more mechanical sounds. We have become habituated with the level of sounds around us. Even if we have learned to ignore them, our body is still processing these stimulus. We, like sound, are energetic. When we become more mindful of our soundscape, we can make conscious decisions about the kinds of sounds we desire as they have an impact on our health and wellbeing.

1 Greedy Silva. The Lost Art of Resurrection p78.
2 Florence Williams. Is Your Noisy Neighborhood Slowly Killing You? Inside the science of negative sound effects, and what we can do about them. Mother Jones, January/February 2017.
3 Clive Thompson on How Man-Made Noise May Be Altering Earth’s Ecology. Wired.
4 This idea came to me on my many bus rides. I was quite surprised that people thought it completely okay to blast the audios of their games and TV shows and yell their conversations (the privacy of which notwithstanding). Often I thought about a “Rush Hour Silence” initiative, like GO‘s Quiet Zones in the Toronto area. It’s quiet, where “short and quiet conversations are okay, keep electronics including cell phones, tablets and laptops muted, and ensure your headphone volume is so low others cannot hear it” – ) not silent though. From GO FAQS –

The Quiet Zone is a designated area located on the upper level of all rush-hour GO trains.* You’ll experience all the regular comforts of travelling with us but with reduced noise.

Here are a few things to remember when you’re in the Quiet Zone:

  • Short and quiet conversations are ok.
  • Keep electronics including cell phones, tablets, and laptops muted.
  • Ensure your headphone volume is so low others cannot hear it.

*Rush hour includes all trains arriving or departing Union Station before 9:30 a.m. and all trains leaving or arriving at Union Station between 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Monday to Friday.

5 Florence. Mother Jones, January/February 2017.